Israel travels

At the tombs of the sages in Tiberias, legends and folk tales come alive

The steam that rises from the road to greet you underlines the unique spirit of this ancient rabbinical town

At the entrance to the tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba'al Haness (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-am)
At the entrance to the tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba'al Haness (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-am)

More often than not, as you near the southern end of Tiberias, steam rises above you along the road. The explanation for this strange phenomenon is simple: King Solomon once sent a group of devils into the belly of the earth to stoke the fires of the Tiberias hot springs. As they were deaf devils, they never “heard” the news of Solomon’s passing and are still fanning the flames to this day.

So famous for their healing powers that the sages decreed they could be visited even on the Sabbath, the hot springs are situated in Hamat Tiberias National Park. Located directly across from a modern-day spa, the park also houses a splendid mosaic floor from an ancient synagogue.

Tiberias is a relatively young Galilean city that was established by King Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great) in 20 CE. Reared in Rome and a connoisseur of Roman culture, Antipas was eager to have a Hellenistic-style bathhouse in the grandiose city he was planning. Indeed, he probably picked this little strip adjacent to the Sea of Galilee for his new city because of its wonderful, healing hot springs.

The plush bathhouse constructed around the springs was destroyed in an eighth-century earthquake. Although it was rebuilt several times afterwards, what you see at the park are remains of a sumptuous Turkish spa completed in 1840.

A stunning mosaic floor from a synagogue dating back to the 4th century — the era in which the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) met in Tiberias — is the main attraction of the park. Considered to the first of its kind to have been installed in a Jewish house of worship, the mosaic floor includes a Zodiac design with the Greek sun god Helios at the center.

Outside, an exposed portion of the hot springs is the source of the steam you may have seen swirling above the road. That nose-wrinkling, peculiar smell results from large quantities of sulfur. If you were to dip your fingers briefly in the water you would understand why rabbis of the time called Tiberias the entrance to hell.

Tiberias is also the city in which Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness (translated as “Miracle Worker”) lies buried. His tomb is situated above the National Park and topped by both a blue and a white dome.

A favorite story about this rabbi concerns a woman who attended his class on Friday evenings. One day the session lasted so late that by the time she returned home the Sabbath candles had burned out. Since they were the only source of light in the house on the Sabbath, her husband was furious — and locked his wife out.

When the woman knocked on her door, the husband opened it just a crack and asked, “Were you at Rabbi Meir’s class?” Since she answered in the affirmative, he declared that he wouldn’t let her in until she spat in the rabbi’s face.

Word reached Rabbi Meir that his pupil had spent the night outside. Next day he walked up to her in the marketplace and said, “I have something in my eye. Please help me by spitting into it and washing it out.”

“What a coincidence,” said her companion. “This is your chance to return home.”

But, unwilling to humiliate the rabbi, she hesitated, agreeing to spit in his eye only after the rabbi begged again for her help. In fact, under his pleas, she did so seven times.

“Now,” said the rabbi, “Go home and tell your husband you spat in my face seven times!” Which she did, and the two made peace.

All of the anonymous works in the codified oral law called the Mishna are attributed to this learned rabbi, who believed that Torah study was as important as work and prayer. According to legend, Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness was buried standing up and ready to greet the Messiah.

Outside the large structure that houses his tomb, people light memorial candles in a metal oven. And at the entrance, instead of the solemn atmosphere you might expect, a bustling marketplace goes full blast, offering religious books and compact discs, head coverings, wood carvings, portraits of various important rabbis, a vast variety of candles, tambourines,  and ice cream. On different sides of the tomb there are large prayer sites for men and for women.

The other Rachel's tomb (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The other Rachel’s tomb (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Tiberias also holds Rachel’s Tomb — not that of our illustrious matriarch but the long-suffering wife of Rabbi Akiva. Until a few decades ago, this spot was neglected and full of litter. Then one day, a hazy figure rescued a young man about to drown in the Sea of Galilee. That night, it is said, Rachel appeared to him in a dream, told him that she had saved his life, and revealed the site of her grave. Armed with this new knowledge, the swimmer built this impressive monument.

Rachel was the daughter of rich Jerusalemite Kalba Savua, Akiva a poor uneducated shepherd who tended her father’s flocks. The two met and fell in love. But Rachel, in awe of Akiva’s vast but untutored intellect, agreed to marry him only if he promised to go to school. After wedding in secret, the couple was disowned by Rachel’s father and lived in devastating poverty.

Although Rachel insisted that Akiva keep his end of the bargain, he scoffed, called her “unrealistic” and claimed he was too old and set in his ways for schooling. To make her case, Rachel took her husband to a spring whose waters had patiently, day after day and year after year, worn a hole into a small rock. Suddenly Akiva understood that if a drop of water could change a rock, he could absorb Torah studies.

Tradition holds that Akiva learned how to read at the age of 40 together with his little son. He then went on to a famous Jerusalem academy and returned 24 years later, with 24,000 reverent students following in his wake. Rachel went running out to greet him — but the impoverished woman, dressed in rags, was rudely turned away by the students. Akiva rushed to her side, declaring to his students, “Any wisdom I have learned, or have imparted to you, comes from this woman, my wife.”

Visitors to the site can view the famous rock that had such an influence on Akiva — and watch how water continues its steady drip.

Rabbi Alkiva's tomb (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Rabbi Akiva’s tomb (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Rabbi Akiva, also buried in Tiberias, actively supported the Jews’ second revolt against the Romans along with the revolt’s commander, fiery Shimon Bar-Kochba. The Jews lost the revolt, but even afterwards Rabbi Akiva continued to defy Roman edicts by teaching Jewish law. For this he was martyred by the Romans in Caesarea, flayed to death as he uttered the prayer “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Throughout the ages Rabbi Akiva has been a role model for Jews willing to die rather than violate the laws of the Torah.

Maimonides' tomb (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Maimonides’ tomb (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Maimonides was a 12th-century Jewish legal expert, scholar, philosopher and doctor and one of the greatest minds ever produced by the Jewish people. His most comprehensive work on Jewish law was the 14-volume Mishne Torah, considered a work of genius. Written on the wall of his strange, metal-topped shrine in Tiberias is a saying coined by his contemporaries: “From Moses to Moses, there has never been another Moses” — a reference to the biblical lawgiver Moses.

Legend has it that when Maimonides’ body was brought to Tiberias for burial from his home in Egypt, the camel carrying his remains stopped next to the grave of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai. And that is where he was laid to rest.

A member of the Sanhedrin, Ben Zakkai was a famous rabbi in his own right. While Jerusalem was under Roman siege, and just before the final Roman assault, Ben-Zakkai was daringly spirited out of the city in a coffin. He then climbed out of the casket to meet with Roman commander Vespasian in the latter’s tent.

During their audience Ben-Zakkai predicted that the commander would one day become emperor and asked that the new ruler spare a small town called Yavne from destruction. His request was granted. Soon afterwards Vespasian was indeed crowned emperor — and Jerusalem fell to the Romans. Ben-Zakkai and his followers then set up a center for Jewish study, in Yavne.

Among the rabbi’s learned teachings is my favorite: “Whoever walks four meters in the Land of Israel is assured of a place in the world to come.” Boy, am I happy I live in Israel!

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a private tour guide.

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